Remember the horse and buggy? You know, that equine-powered conveyance that whisked you down the streets with no sound but the clatter of hoves and metal-rimmed wheels on the road. Traveling at speeds in excess of 4 or 5 miles per hour? Yeah, those were the days. The horse-drawn carriage certainly has some elements of charm which the automobile lacks, and its demise was certainly sad, but I wouldn’t want to go back. Similarly, there has been a great deal of wailing and nashing of teeth in response to the unfolding demise of Tower Records, and I’m entirely sympathetic to the sentimental feelings of loss, but far too much of the discussion has been doom-and-gloom predictions of a serious blow to independant and classical music, and I’m not buying it.
Back in October, Anthony Tommasini wrote in the New York Times that “For many people, tracking down a CD online, with only various critiques by unknown purchasers to guide them, is not the same as mingling with other opera buffs in front of the Verdi shelves.” Timothy Mangan, classical music critic for the Orange County Register, wrote “The death of Tower Records (bankrupt, liquidated) is a serious blow for classical music. . . .Browsing is important — absolutely necessary — for the classical buyer. . . Often, customers didn’t have much of an idea what they wanted when they walked in the door. . . . Which one of the dozens [of recordings of a given piece] offered they didn’t know; they’d browse and find out. . . Having a knowledgeable clerk on hand is also crucial to the classical-buying process.”
At the beginning of November, the AP reported that “Larry Kirwan, lead singer of the Irish band Black 47, was scouring the rock bins and mourning Tower’s imminent loss. ‘It’s a bad day for music,’ Kirwan said. ‘It’s a bad day for independent bands. … Right from the beginning, even before we were signed with labels they carried us. They’ve been good to musicians.’ Kirwan said taking music off the Internet is not the same as buying a vinyl LP or even a CD.”
A couple of days ago “The Nation” published an essay by Max Fraser entitled “The Day the Music Died” in which he provides some additional interesting quotes: René Goiffon, who runs Harmonia Mundi, says “a whole bunch of smaller labels are going to disappear completely.” Russ Solomon, Tower Records founder, says “Who’s going to download an opera?”
First of all, Tower had 89 stores in 20 states, and presumably the biggest stores, the ones with the deepest catalogs, were in big cities, like the much-mourned store by Lincoln Center in New York. The vast majority of consumers didn’t have access to a Tower Records, and even fewer people had access to the flagship stores. The shift to digital downloads and internet retail which cut into Tower’s margins and led to bankruptcy has made hard-to-find music more accessable to most people. In fact, the effect of the Long Tail makes it practical and profitable for an iTunes or an Amazon.com to have an extraordinarily large collection, one which would dwarf the offerings of even the biggest brick-and-mortar store. The overhead cost to iTunes for having one more album worth of material in its catalog is negligible compared to the cost to a brick-and-mortar establishment to ship inventory and pay high rents for premium retail locations. Amazon can afford to offer a single copy of an obscure CD to the whole country, increasing the likelyhood that the prospective buyer will find it — if that CD is on a shelf in the Lincoln Center Tower Records and the guy who wants it is searching the local record stores in Grand Rapids he’s not going to find it and everybody loses out. Or, as the always sharp Matthew Yglesias puts it “A place like EMusic that doesn’t require a physical inventory has every incentive to stock (virtually) any album whatsoever that a record label is interesting in having them stock, something that no brick-and-mortar record store could ever claim.”
Matt goes on to observe that “Meanwhile, ‘discovering new musical acts while browsing the stacks and interacting with a knowledgeable staff’ doesn’t seem like an especially optimal method.” Any number of social networking websites and music recommendation engines can point you in the right direction, and they all have more data available than even the best store clerk. Amazon.com will tell you what other people who bought what you just bought liked, they offer reviews of the material from other consumers, and in most cases you can sample the music for free to see if the advice you got was any good. How is the demise of Tower going to negatively impact small labels, exactly? At Tower, even though they were open to stocking relatively obscure music you presumably still had to make the decision-makers believe that they would actually be able to turn a profit on the records they agreed to stock. With digital distributuion and online-retailing the overhead costs for a given record are lower, so the sales rate can be lower and remain profitable. Small labels should be more likely, not less likely, to be able to get virtual shelf space. It’s already easier to make your music available for sale on iTunes than to get it onto a shelf in a bricks-and-mortar store.
The objection that a bricks-and-mortar store is better for the classical music fan who doesn’t know which version of Gotterdamerung to buy simply doesn’t hold up. The new models offer a wider selection of versions, and usually offer samples of each version so you can figure out which sounds best to you. And again, an online repository of opinions and recommendations would be a better way to choose a version than relying on the knowledge of one or two store clerks — no matter how knowledgeable they are, they can’t compete with the amount of information and opinion available on the web.
The remaining concern would be that classical audiences aren’t willing or able to move to the new model. Personally, I still prefer to own a physical CD than a digital download — liner-notes are nice, I like the idea of always having a backup copy to any digital files, and I’m not sure I trust the Digital Rights Management used in downloads not to screw me over. But I’m not being forced to buy downloads — I can shop at Amazon, get physical CDs delivered to me in a matter of days, and choose from a wider selection than Tower offered. I don’t have to download that opera if I don’t want to. On the other hand, digital downloading of classical music has actually been quite strong. According to a study done by Grammaphone:
- One in five classical music fans download music from sites like iTunes
- Downloaders are downloading at rates comparable to CD purchasers
- Downloaders over 50 years old download at almost the same rates as their younger counterparts
- 22% (I’m not sure if this is the percent of classical music listeners or of CD buyers) say they will start downloading within a year
Furthermore, according to the Recording Industry Association of America, classical music’s market share in CDs is 2.4 percent, but the share of the download market is actually higher. This means that in fact a _larger_ percentage of classical music consumers get their music via digital download than do music consumers in general.
Is it sad that the once great Tower Records has met its demise? Yes. But the end of Tower Records is an inevitable result of the rise of digital downloads and internet retail, and that’s a price worth paying. And it’s not like bricks-and-mortar record stores are going to disappear entirely. After all, you can still get a ride in a horse-drawn carriage in Central Park.